Holding Patterns: Spring 2020

It’s Koningsdag (King’s Day) today. It’s usually loud and raucous, streets packed with flea market items, people crammed on boats teeming on canals, kids performing violin solos and playing games, plenty of beer, and orange-clad revellers throughout Amsterdam. Today is quiet, local, and subdued. A few neighbours are out chatting while keeping the regulatory 1.5m distance, kids are playing football in pairs…and that’s about it.

The skies are bright blue, and not a single aircraft can be seen right now.

The last few weeks have involved rebooking or cancelling long-haul flights and shorter-haul train tickets: to Seoul for our Asian Borderlands conference (moved to the same time next year), to San Francisco for a roundtable, to Zürich for an invited talk, and to Tallinn for a workshop.

We’re also postponing a pilot project sponsored by the UvA’s Centre for Urban Studies, where we were going to bring two Nepali air traffic controllers to meet with counterparts working here in the Netherlands to brainstorm overlapping experiences in managing urban skies.

And much of life is on hold. Holding patterns indeed.

While my new research project is on how people in aviation ‘manage the skies’ in practice, the disruption due to Covid-19 in fact opens up even more questions for the future of the industry and the people who make air infrastructure work.

What does this mean? On one hand, flights will likely be more expensive and could involve more stringent environmental conditions if flights resume again, and on the other hand – according to sales employees in two European airline companies – people are booking plenty of holidays for 2021 in anticipation of flying again. There is talk of airline company bailouts and (re!)nationalisations and aviation jobs layoffs, but then again, what happens with aviation staff when people get back to flying, if at all? How will flight routes and paths be managed or rearranged? These are questions that overlap with broader implications for post-Covid-19 future scenarios like those in this article by Itty Abraham.

When there is time to work (ha ha ha), I am revising an article for Cultural Anthropology, a book chapter on Development Zones in Asia for this project, and awaiting the publication of a forthcoming co-authored piece for Mobilities. And Voluminous States will be forthcoming in August by Duke University Press – very excited about it, including the stunning cover. We are still continuing supervisions online – I am particularly excited about a MA student who is working on a thesis about frequent flyers and flight shame – but this period is unbelievably tough for students, many who have to return early from the field, many who are struggling in different ways. Weiqiang Lin’s SSHR project on ‘Peopling Infrastructure: Aeromobilities, Automation and Labour Mobilisations in Asia has just begun, and I am pleased to be involved. This is going to be a curious next few years for labour in aviation.

It’s all there, simmering, but naturally slow-going, and perhaps slow is what we need now.

There is still plenty to figure out over the next few months. For now, I am online teaching, supervising, and our family is trying to juggle living in our apartment which is now a hybrid office-school-living space. But we are – so far – relatively healthy, and that is everything. It’s a sinister virus. Take care of each other.

Borders and “free trade”

In the name of development, China, India, and Nepal are building new border roads and reopening old border posts for increased trade opportunities. In this video, Tina Harris explains how people living and working in these borderlands deal with this transformation in their daily lives.

Tina Harris is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam, and is co-director of the AISSR Moving Matters research group

Further reading

For further information, see Harris, Tina. 2013. Geographical Diversions: Tibetan Trade, Global Transactions. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Air Pressure

I’m grading and assessing and counting down the days until the winter holidays (three more days!). It’s time for a break. I’m tired.

But when it comes to research, I think I feel rejuvenated. I returned from fieldwork in Nepal in April, and I’m still making sense of my notes; met some fantastic people working in the aviation sector. All I can say for now is that it’s HARD, and I salute the people who make it all work, given the constraints and congestion. I’m working on an article and a lot of it is about manipulating space and time to make everything fit and flow. Some of these ideas were ‘tested’ at UBC in October in front of a generous audience, including a pilot. Plus, the Himalaya Program makes some lovely event posters.

Last week, I did a bit of research on a pilot programme for airport employees with eight other aviation scholars and the lovely folks at Luchtvaart Community Schiphol . We (Dide van Eck, Helene Ilkjaer, and myself) held the fieldwork workshop at Schiphol on a whim. And what a whim it was. No real budget, but a great group of social scientists dedicated to making sense of airports and aviation. It’s just the beginning of many more events…

And now, a break.

Crunch Time, November

In transit to the AAA Meetings in DC. It’s been ages since I’ve been to one (5-6 years?) and I always forget how prohibitively expensive it is for grad students and adjuncts and simply anyone without a meagre conference stipend. The panel I’ll be participating in ought to be a fine one: rethinking borders from a ‘volumetric’ perspective, with some lovely partners-in-crime who have contributed to a great Cultural Anthropology series called Speaking Volumes. I write about lag.

It’s crunch time now; the busiest time of the year. Grading, assessing, lecturing, conferencing, meeting, generally scrambling to Get All Things Done before the winter holidays. I am doing a very silly thing and teaching right after I land next week; straight from the airport to the classroom. I normally try to avoid this (Jet lag! Confusion! Exhaustion! Glassy eyes!) but it was impossible this time around. Wish me luck.

Speaking of airports, I will be talking about them a fair amount within the next year or so; a spring sabbatical in Nepal, a round of summer research in Europe (my first time doing research outside of Asia, eek), and at the next Asian Borderlands Conference in Bishkek in late August. And then, writing. Someone recently reminded of Tom Gauld’s course on Procrastination for writers. That will be me.

And my gate is called.

Sunny September

I am back in my comfortable intra-Asian hybrid anthropology-geography saddle again after a surprisingly relaxing summer. This term, I’m teaching courses in the bachelors programme, the masters programme, the research masters programme, the contemporary Asian studies programme, not to mention supervising several bachelors, masters, and PhD theses. Different hats. Fingers in different pots. Tentacles in different hats. I think I am getting my idioms mixed up now that I live in the Netherlands (land of amazing idioms – for example: “Nu komt de aap uit de mouw” – now the monkey comes out of the sleeve). But I think I’ve got this; compared to last year, when I was teetering on the edge of burnout. My son is now two years old. I am no longer up all night with crying and milk and deadlines. This is not to say that I am well-rested (ha!), but I’m happy. I think that every institution should be able to give a semester off for junior-ish faculty to recharge every two or three years. I am shifting my priorities around these days. Living in Amsterdam and cycling to work on a sunny day is helpful.

I also found that I am inspired to write more if I read more novels and non-academic texts. I deal with nonfiction all day, so fiction is my way of escape, always with the intention to return. Novels make me crave more language and dialogue. So do narratives that are dramatic, that have a denouement, that are beautiful…just like good ethnographic writing. I recently put out a call for new reading material on Facebook and friends came back to suggest all sorts of fantastic things. It was specifically a call for post-apocalyptic novels, China Miéville-ish stuff. These were good suggestions; Station Eleven, Nod, Under the Skin. Then someone suggested The Bees – a story from the vantage point of bees: surprisingly thrilling! I finally read Blindness by Jose Saramago. But there were other, non-sci-fi suggestions. Ruby was sharp and harrowing and beautiful. And I re-read James Baldwin’s Another Country. The most important book of the summer, I think. Then there were autobiographies by people I do not necessarily like (see Rupert Everett), but they were unbelievably compelling and over-the-top-painful at times (see David Carr). So, I write and read, read and write. This reading not-anthropology, then writing anthropology kick involves not futzing around on the Internet, however, so back to reading and writing I go…

Trains, Infrastructure, Borderlands

Two separate newspaper articles about cost-cutting, revenue increases, and efficiency on trains caught my attention recently. There was one on the loss of the platzkart, the third-class sleeper car on Russian trains, and another on the loss of the pantry car on Indian trains. This, paired with more cuts on other long-distance services, such as the night train from Amsterdam to Copenhagen that my partner and I always wanted to take, I headed over to the news section of one of my favorite train travel sites, The Man in Seat 61, who is the guru of all things train-related. It’s not all doom and gloom; there are reports of a Peru route being reinstated, Vietnamese Railways introducing online bookings, Ljubljana-Venice reopening. It would be nice if someone could do a time lapse map of all these route openings, closings, and re-openings.

Speaking of transport, logistics, and capital, I’ve been completely mesmerized by Charmaine Chua’s fabulous container ship ethnography blog series. Also, Cultural Anthropology (happily Open Access now) has put up all sorts of pieces on writing about and researching infrastructure, so I feel like my latest interests are moving with the times. I’m also seeing so many great CFPs for infrastructure and borders (as well as infrastructure and temporality) panels at the upcoming AAG 2016. Unfortunately, it’s in the middle of a massive teaching load for me next year, so I can’t attend. Someone report back for me, please.

Our next (already the 5th!) Asian Borderlands Conference (theme: Dynamic Borderlands: Livelihoods, Communities, and Flows) will be held in Kathmandu, Nepal on 12-14 December 2016, in conjunction with Social Science Baha, a fine organisation that has done a lot for critical social science in Nepal over the past few years. I haven’t returned since the earthquake, but have been in touch with several colleagues and friends — these have been intense and trying times for many. The latest border/geopolitical news, as explained in this Washington Post article, involves a new (discriminatory) constitution, blockades at the southern border with India, fuel shortages as a consequence, and questions about the future role of the Kyirong (Tibet-Nepal) border reopening.

Autumn Update 2014

It’s autumn and the three of us have colds. I’m sitting here listening to my coughing almost-six-month old through the baby monitor, amazed at how extraordinarily different my life was just a few months ago. I’m looking forward to the adventures that lie ahead, like showing him the aquarium or putting him on the front of my bicycle while we cycle to daycare. The first few months were truly difficult, perhaps partly because I’m not used to *not* getting at least a couple of things done each day. The thing that began to make it better – besides of course the slow disappearance of what was supposedly colic and sleeping more than 3 hours at night – was a conversation with another new academic mother who introduced me to the term “mothering worker” (as opposed to working mother) from Gabrielle Hosein’s excellent blog, Diary of a Mothering Worker. It fits, it feels right. I have the routine down now, we go to daycare together in the morning and I hop on my bike and head to the office. Reverse the procedure on the way home. But the poor thing is now ill, so I guess that’s it for the routine for the time being. But we’re all learning, and the term “kinderziektes” (childhood illnesses/teething) makes sense…

…in two senses. In July, our department moved to a new building. We used to be in the Spinhuis, a 16th century correction house for women who would spin as part of their rehabilitation process. Someone once told me that they were convinced that the building was haunted, which reminded me of Avery Gordon’s work, Ghostly Matters, which deals sociologically with the lingering of ghosts and disappearances; “to be haunted is to be tied to social and historical effects” (Gordon 2008: 190). Sure, I miss the old tiled staircases and the student common room (now squatted and still running as a collective). But in the new building, I am learning to balance childcare with work, save for the small hiccups, growing pains, teething – the kinderziektes – such as when I couldn’t get into the nursing room at the beginning or loud drilling during lectures. But it has its plusses. I can work well in my office. It’s quiet for the most part. The social sciences are all in the same building. I have had more productive coffee-machine conversations with colleagues in the past two months than in a year. And the coffee isn’t bad.

In other, less personal news, we’ve just put together the program for our next Asian Borderlands conference, which should prove once again to be a fantastic group of papers and roundtables. I am looking forward to Hong Kong, the conference, and the discussions. I suppose I’m biased, but it truly is one of my favorite conferences. Plus, an idea to do a quick follow-up round of research is sparking again, now that one of the issues that I wrote about – the extension of the Lhasa railway down to Yatung/gro mo – has the green light. I have a fun pile of aeromobility related books in my office that I am excited about, and in a related vein, I also have just purchased Deb Cowen’s Deadly Life of Logistics. Now, to find the time to sit and read…

Yak tails box

Autumn Update and Some Musings on Academic Titles

Well now. Since I last posted, The Book has been published, hurrah. It’s been nice to receive some email responses as well as to hear through the grapevine that some reviews are in the works. There are a whole list of online places to find it (including alibaba and walmart [?!]), but it’s always nice to ask the library or the local bookshop to obtain a copy. I’ve since spotted a couple of silly translation errors, grr grr grr, but for the most part, it’s a satisfying feeling to finally have this monograph in hand.

The 4th Asian Borderlands Conference Call for Papers has now been posted (deadline 1 February 2014), with the theme, “Activated Borders: Reopenings, Ruptures, Relationships.” It will be held in Hong Kong in December of 2014, and so far, City University of Hong Kong has been fantastic in helping to organize the event. Looking forward to it already. I’ve also just applied for some funding to do a project on mobility and small international airports. It’s somewhat of a new direction for me, but I’m extremely excited about starting a fresh project. I sort of feel like my research is heading in a more coherent direction this time around. Or maybe it’s just because I’m getting older and I’m finding any kind of jargon more and more unpalatable.

Here’s a segue related to air mobility and border crossing: I travel to the UK a lot, and when I enter the aircraft, the flight attendant occasionally sees my title on my boarding pass and says something like, “Welcome DOCTOR Harris!,” to which someone behind me will sometimes comment, “Glad we have a doctor on board!” To which I end up replying, “Er, not that kind of doctor” – or when I’ve had a particularly difficult week, “Not the useful kind, I’m afraid.” This kind of exchange always calls to mind a story from a colleague in sociology, perhaps a little apocryphal, but certainly not unbelievable. During one long-haul flight, he was summoned on the PA system to head to the front of the plane. There he found a man in distress, assisted by a couple of flight attendants who looked relieved when he arrived. He suddenly realized that someone must have seen his “Dr.” title on the passenger list, and said it was the only time where he felt truly useless, and that he wasted his career. He also mentioned that the thought ran through his head that he only would have been able to help had it been a sociological emergency. It turned out that a medical doctor was on the plane as well, and my colleague was able to hold the person’s hand and talk to them until the MD arrived.

When I fill in my UK landing card, I have learned to write “lecturer”, as I am not a “professor” in the UK context. Yet I am a professor in the US, while “lecturer” normally refers to a non-tenure-track position. “Assistant professor” is the usual equivalent in North America, but in other international contexts I’ve been told that it sounds like you just assist the professor, “hold her briefcase or whatever.” And my official title in Dutch is Universitair Docent (UD), which translates to “university lecturer” in English, but is part of yet another complicated nation-specific system of institutional title-hierarchy. It also means that I don’t get to wear my puffy tasseled velvet 8-cornered hat and Dumbledore-y robe at a PhD defense (not that I mind). Only full professors get to do this in the Netherlands, whereas in the US, professors of all ranks often wear regalia for most graduation ceremonies. I don’t care so much about titles or regalia, but what I am interested in – and fascinated by – is international miscommunication based on the translations of titles. “Docent” in Dutch can translate as “Teacher” in English when it is a non-research tenure-track lecturing position, but I doubt that many UK or North American job applicants would apply for the job if they just saw it was for a “Teacher.” And, what’s further, if someone from the US is asked what they do for a living and they say they “teach,” this can apply to teaching anywhere, in a primary/elementary school all the way through postgraduate level. This is much less common in a UK context – you “teach” at a primary school, but “lecture” at a university.

Anyway, these are just some minor musings based on travelling between three different countries for both academic and family life. I’ve dug around a bit and found some articles that explain these situations a lot more succinctly, especially this guest blog post by Veronica Davidov on the Dutch academic job market on Karen Kelsky’s site “The Professor is In,” and a post on international academic titles on my favo(u)rite linguistics site by Lynne Murphy – “Separated By A Common Language,” concerning the differences between BrE and AmE.

mysterious surmount

Mid-March Mobilities

It’s “spring”. Yet there are still plenty of days where I cycle home from the office, hoping that the rain doesn’t turn into ice. It usually does. Cycling against the wind along a long stretch of cycle path with the little pellets of icy rain striking my face really hurts. But one of the many things I truly love about living in Amsterdam is the cycling, no matter what the weather is like. Cycling to pick up a bottle of wine, or to drop off the recycling, or to head to the train station, or to go out to a restaurant, or to shuttle singing children in a bakfiets to school, all helmet-less and unfazed and nonplussed. The ease and safety of cycling on dedicated bicycle lanes here in the Netherlands is actually deterring me from cycling when I am in NYC or London, at least until the infrastructure gets better and it is seen more as a regular mode of transport. This notion of an everyday cycling culture was discussed last Friday (see Manuel Stoffers’s great cycling history bibliography and a nice page of links to cycling) at a seminar that was probably the first gathering of mobilities scholars in the Netherlands. Other papers and projects involved mobile phone use in Cameroon, oil crises and sustainability, global deportation regimes, and my own thoughts on regional transport hubs as part of a new research project that I will discuss more of in the upcoming months. John Urry from Lancaster (who was also there) has a Centre for Mobilities Research and has just released a CFP for a very interesting-looking conference on Mobility Futures hosted by CeMoRe in September.

In other news, I am honoured to be a new member of the editorial board of Himalaya. It is really an excellent publication for anyone doing research in various academic disciplines related to the Himalayas (broadly-defined). It publishes reports from the field as well as dissertation abstracts, which are nice options for graduate students around the world looking to publish in international peer-reviewed journals. In even better news, rumour has it that they are working towards an open access situation, something that one of my favourite journals, Cultural Anthropology, has just committed to over the next year or so. I feel strongly about this, especially having spent time with brilliant scholars, researchers, and journalists in many parts of the world who do not have access to articles in journals trapped behind expensive paywalls.